Thoughts on Carr’s The Shallows

I’m in the middle of Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows. It’s a very readable and engaging book, but so far I’m having trouble distinguishing Carr’s argument from that of authors like Sven Birkerts or even Mark Bauerlein. Carr’s biases are less obvious and blatant than those of the two authors just mentioned, and unlike them, he provides scientific evidence for his claims. However, his argument still seems like a traditionalist defense of old-fashioned modes of reading. Carr essentially assumes that what Hayles calls “deep attention” is superior to “hyper attention,” and seeks to prove that the Internet fosters the latter and is hostile to the former. What’s missing is a warrant for why deep attention is necessarily better.

The closest Carr comes to providing such a warrant is when he argues, citing scientific evidence, that hypertext has negative effects on memory and reading comprehension. “The more complex the material we’re trying to learn, the greater the penalty exacted by an overloaded mind” (125). Let’s assume for the moment that the available research actually does support Carr’s thesis, and that Carr isn’t just picking and choosing studies that he agrees with. Even then, all it proves is that hypertext is bad at facilitating the sort of sustained, linear reading associated with print text, and I think we already knew that. I mean, the whole point of hypertext, according to early theorists like Bolter, Landow and Joyce, is that it breaks the monotony of print text. The question then is whether hypertext provides other cognitive advantages that print text doesn’t. This is exactly the claim Steven Johnson makes in Everything Bad is Good for You. Carr cites Johnson (122-3) but doesn’t really refute his claims, and Carr himself admits that with hypertext “we gain new skills and perspectives but lose old ones” (120). Why are the skills we lose with hypertext more valuable than those we gain with it? I read Carr’s book because I was looking for a more nuanced and objective answer to that question (compared to the answers that Birkerts and Bauerlein provide), and so far I haven’t found it.

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